NEW WESTMINSTER, British Columbia – A man accused of killing 26 women after luring them to parties at his pig farm went to court Monday for what is expected to be the most macabre and lengthy murder trial in Canadian history.
Hundreds of people began lining up before dawn outside the small courthouse in a suburb of Vancouver, vying for 35 seats to hear the opening arguments against Robert William Pickton.
Pickton, 56, will first be tried for six of the deaths and has pleaded not guilty to each. He arrived in a three-vehicle police caravan with blaring sirens as reporters and family members went through three levels of security to reach the courtroom.
Presiding British Columbia Supreme Court Justice James Williams ruled that the 20 other charges would be heard in a later trial to avoid overburdening the jury. He warned the 12 jurors for the first trial that the prosecution's evidence and witness testimony would be horrific.
"I think this trial might expose the juror to something that might be as bad as a horror movie and you don't have the option of turning off the TV," he said as he excused one juror.
If found guilty of more than 14 charges, Pickton would become the worst convicted killer in Canadian history, after Marc Lepine, who gunned down 14 women at the Ecole Polytechnic in Montreal in 1989 before shooting himself.
The women "Willie" Pickton is accused of killing were mostly prostitutes and drug addicts who vanished from Vancouver's impoverished Downtown Eastside neighborhood in the 1990s.
Pickton is accused of luring women to his family's 17-acre pig farm outside Vancouver, where investigators say he threw drunken raves with prostitutes and drugs. After his arrest in February 2002, health officials issued a tainted meat advisory to neighbors who may have bought pork from his farm, concerned that it may have contained human remains.
After Pickton was arrested and the first traces of DNA from some missing women were allegedly found on the farm, the buildings were razed and the province spent an estimated $61 million (euro47 million) to sift through soil there.
Among the women Pickton is accused of killing is Sarah de Vries, a prostitute who disappeared in 1998 when she was 28. A 1995 entry in her diary revealed she feared for her life after women began disappearing in downtown Vancouver.
"Am I next?" she wrote. "Is he watching me now? Is he stalking me like a predator and his prey? Waiting, waiting for some perfect spot, time or my stupid mistake."
Allegations presented in more than a year of preliminary hearings have fallen under a publication ban that prevents the media from revealing details to avoid tainting the jury pool. Williams lifted the ban for the trial, which is expected to last a year, after there were no objections from the defense or prosecution.
More than 300 reporters have been accredited to cover Pickton's trial, and a room has been constructed with closed circuit TV to accommodate them. The prosecution is expected to call about 240 witnesses.
Pickton sat in the pretrial hearings in a specially built defendant's box surrounded by bulletproof glass. Clean-shaven with a bald crown and shoulder-length hair, he barely moved, though occasionally he chuckled to himself or scribbled in a notebook.
The Royal Canadian Mounted Police and the Vancouver Police Department have faced intense criticism by community activists and advocates for sex-trade workers, who claim authorities were slow to search for dozens of women who have disappeared in the area over the years.
They counter that police resources were limited and the magnitude of the case was overwhelming.
The task force says 102 women once believed to be missing have been found alive. More than 60 women remain on the list, as well as three unidentified DNA profiles from the Pickton farm.
The first trial covers the murders of Sereena Abotsway, Mona Wilson, Andrea Joesbury, Brenda Wolfe, Georgina Papin and Marnie Frey.
Frey's mother, Lynn, was lined up with other relatives outside the courthouse early Monday, hoping to get one of the 35 seats reserved for family members of the victims.
"It's been a long haul," she told The AP. Her daughter was 25 when she disappeared in August 1997. "I need answers, then hopefully I can carry on with my journey and my life, and let Marnie be at rest."